"Yes! yes! Go on. What did she tell you about your husband?"
"She stopped again, Marian, at that point----"
"And said no more?"
"And listened eagerly. 'Hush!' she whispered, still waving her hand at me. 'Hush!' She moved aside out of the doorway, moved slowly and stealthily, step by step, till I lost her past the edge of the boat-house."
"Surely you followed her?"
"Yes, my anxiety made me bold enough to rise and follow her. Just as I reached the entrance, she appeared again suddenly, round the side of the boat-house. 'The Secret,' I whispered to her--'wait and tell me the Secret!' She caught hold of my arm, and looked at me with wild frightened eyes. 'Not now,' she said, 'we are not alone--we are watched. Come here to-morrow at this time--by yourself--mind--by yourself.' She pushed me roughly into the boat- house again, and I saw her no more."
"Oh, Laura, Laura, another chance lost! If I had only been near you she should not have escaped us. On which side did you lose sight of her?"
"On the left side, where the ground sinks and the wood is thickest."
"Did you run out again? did you call after her?"
"How could I? I was too terrified to move or speak."
"But when you DID move--when you came out?"
"I ran back here, to tell you what had happened."
"Did you see any one, or hear any one, in the plantation?"
"No, it seemed to be all still and quiet when I passed through it."
I waited for a moment to consider. Was this third person, supposed to have been secretly present at the interview, a reality, or the creature of Anne Catherick's excited fancy? It was impossible to determine. The one thing certain was, that we had failed again on the very brink of discovery--failed utterly and irretrievably, unless Anne Catherick kept her appointment at the boat-house for the next day.
"Are you quite sure you have told me everything that passed? Every word that was said?" I inquired.
"I think so," she answered. "My powers of memory, Marian, are not like yours. But I was so strongly impressed, so deeply interested, that nothing of any importance can possibly have escaped me."
"My dear Laura, the merest trifles are of importance where Anne Catherick is concerned. Think again. Did no chance reference escape her as to the place in which she is living at the present time?"
"None that I can remember."
"Oh yes! yes! I forgot that. She told me Mrs. Clements wanted sadly to go with her to the lake and take care of her, and begged and prayed that she would not venture into this neighbourhood alone."
"Was that all she said about Mrs. Clements?"
"Yes, that was all."
"She told you nothing about the place in which she took refuge after leaving Todd's Corner?"
"Nothing--I am quite sure."
"Nor where she has lived since? Nor what her illness had been?"
"No, Marian, not a word. Tell me, pray tell me, what you think about it. I don't know what to think, or what to do next."
"You must do this, my love: You must carefully keep the appointment at the boat-house to-morrow. It is impossible to say what interests may not depend on your seeing that woman again. You shall not be left to yourself a second time. I will follow you at a safe distance. Nobody shall see me, but I will keep within hearing of your voice, if anything happens. Anne Catherick has escaped Walter Hartright, and has escaped you. Whatever happens, she shall not escape ME."
Laura's eyes read mine attentively.
"You believe," she said, "in this secret that my husband is afraid of? Suppose, Marian, it should only exist after all in Anne Catherick's fancy? Suppose she only wanted to see me and to speak to me, for the sake of old remembrances? Her manner was so strange--I almost doubted her. Would you trust her in other things?"
"I trust nothing, Laura, but my own observation of your husband's conduct. I judge Anne Catherick's words by his actions, and I believe there is a secret."
I said no more, and got up to leave the room. Thoughts were troubling me which I might have told her if we had spoken together longer, and which it might have been dangerous for her to know. The influence of the terrible dream from which she had awakened me hung darkly and heavily over every fresh impression which the progress of her narrative produced on my mind. I felt the ominous future coming close, chilling me with an unutterable awe, forcing on me the conviction of an unseen design in the long series of complications which had now fastened round us. I thought of Hartright--as I saw him in the body when he said farewell; as I saw him in the spirit in my dream--and I too began to doubt now whether we were not advancing blindfold to an appointed and an inevitable end.
Leaving Laura to go upstairs alone, I went out to look about me in the walks near the house. The circumstances under which Anne Catherick had parted from her had made me secretly anxious to know how Count Fosco was passing the afternoon, and had rendered me secretly distrustful of the results of that solitary journey from which Sir Percival had returned but a few hours since.
After looking for them in every direction and discovering nothing, I returned to the house, and entered the different rooms on the ground floor one after another. They were all empty. I came out again into the hall, and went upstairs to return to Laura. Madame Fosco opened her door as I passed it in my way along the passage, and I stopped to see if she could inform me of the whereabouts of her husband and Sir Percival. Yes, she had seen them both from her window more than an hour since. The Count had looked up with his customary kindness, and had mentioned with his habitual attention to her in the smallest trifles, that he and his friend were going out together for a long walk.